30 July 2007

Outdoors mind-clearing

I've heard (somebody will correct me if I mis-) that we Argentinians are among the most gregarious and outgoing folks in the world. Going out to a park by the river in large numbers when there's a noticeable breeze and a freezing cold must surely count.

Anxious to escape the monotony of a Sunday at home was the motivation; the fact that Sunday actually honoured its etymology (not a cloud in sight) was the excuse. You simply can't stay home when there's such a nice day outside, and if you're sick and tired of staying inside waiting for the "polar wave" to subside, you'll do anything. (If you live outside Argentina, consider this: temperatures just above or below freezing every other morning and evening for two months. That's not a wave, that's a flood.)

I caught my second cold of the year more than a week ago, doing the second afternoon trip on the Barco Ciudad de Rosario I with the Rosarigasinos, and I'm still rather rough, but I couldn't resist the sun and went with a couple of friends to have mate by the river. Silly us, for some reason we were sure we were the only ones to be so clever, but alas, the coast of Rosario (all the 7 km of it) was full of people, young, old (with additional scarves), middle-aged (with kids), and dogs fighting, barking at, or trying to copulate with other dogs, when not sniffing around people's legs and belongings looking for yet another place to soil with the byproducts of their metabolism.

It was quite OK, though. It's always fun to talk nonsense over mate for a while. That is, until the sun starts to go down and the cold bites you again. In the meantime, I managed to do some boat-spotting. There's a Flickr group that collects pictures of ships in the Paraná River, and I'm always happy to contribute. Being part of the (soon-obsolete, I guess) last generation of people who were born and lived a good part of their life without the Internet and globalized communications, I'm still amazed when I realize I can spot a cargo ship off the coast of the city and, mere hours later, learn everything about it just by googling its name.

(If you're curious, it's the Jag Rishi. It's an Indian drybulk cargo, and from an online report I found and promptly misplaced, it appears to be taking cereal from the terminals that Cargill has here in Rosario and in San Lorenzo, to the UK. Seems like a nice boat, though actually they all look the same... The name in devanagari was a nice touch.)

Well, besides nonsense and some politics (on which I won't allow to get started), the boys and I discussed and decided to start role-playing again after an overlong hiatus. The direction, or more properly the storytelling, will be done by moi. Should be fun, unless I get nasty like one of those stereotypical stage directors when dealing with "incompetent" actors, which I tend to do... sometimes. Ahem.

29 July 2007

Tourism in Santa Fe

I'm a fan of travel and tourism, as you may already have noticed. I'm convinced that travelling broadens the mind and (under the proper conditions) helps you relax, rethink your life strategies, plan ahead. I'm pleasantly surprised to notice how Rosario is slowly receiving an increasing trickle of tourists, who will, I assume, take the good news back to their homes, whether in Argentina or abroad (it seems to be mostly Argentina and mostly Buenos Aires, though there have been no formal surveys of that, and I've walked past groups of people speaking English and German more than once in the last few weeks).

I was also surprised, negatively and continuously, that Santa Fe as a province didn't bother to try and attract tourism. That was until now. The government, in coordination with private companies, has launched Turismo Cerca, an initiative that is (in this first stage) intended to promote tourism in the province. It's only in Buenos Aires, because it's conveniently close, accessible, and of course, because one third of the country's population lives in the metropolitan area. With hundreds of kilometers of river coast, plus eco-agricultural and historical tourism options just waiting to be exploited, it's a shame that this hasn't been done before, but better late than never.

I must say that I myself am guilty of not advertising my province by word or by example. I've stayed in places 1000 km away from here and I haven't visited the tens of small towns not 100 km around Rosario that have interesting things to show. Considering my availability of money and time, I feel like I'm wasting my time sitting here while I could be zigzagging around the province with a backpack... I think I'll be checking that touristic portal of the province more often.

26 July 2007

No news

Is it me, or there's no news? Real news I mean, not those things you get to watch on TV. Check this:

  • Power cuts to homes and industries continue. The government continues to deny they're part of a crisis. Here in Rosario, the head of the power company EPE said, just like that, that things will be OK in about 10 years, "though we'll begin to notice changes in just 2 or 3 years".
  • The company also unveiled a project to educate schoolchildren about power conservation, using cartoons, with a hero named "Superwatt" and villains called e.g. "Frigoman" (a fridge) and "Dr. Derrochón" (Dr. Waster). OK, that could qualify for the "weird news" section, but the pathetic incompetence of EPE is definitely not news.
  • INDEC is being reformed, but the government continues to say that the inflation figures were OK all this time despite the insultingly obvious tampering they've suffered since at least January. President Kirchner now says there's a lobby of big financial groups who want inflation to rise so they get more profit from the inflation-indexed bonds they bought. No news here either: deny reality, blame someone else, invent conspiracies.
  • The dollar-peso exchange rate went up a notch yesterday, and everybody was suddenly hysterical, as if the world was about to end. Almost instantly, the old money people warned that they might be forced to raise the price of beef. No news. The aristocracy that has owned most of Argentina's productive cropland and pastures since their ancestors slaughtered the Indians that lived in them back in the 1880s has always found reasons to charge more.
  • Politicians are playing musical chairs again, each one fearing he or she will have no place in the list of winners and will have to get a real, decent job until the next election. Boring!
So there's really nothing to comment, news-wise. See you in a couple of days, unless (luckily) somebody really important dies horribly or something.

24 July 2007

Be careful what you ask for

Some of the items that are not, repeat, not becoming more and more expensive every day.
(picture by johannrela)
Rounding up the economics news... Cristina K says she'll do the same as her husband, though undoubtedly she says it with many and much more sophisticated words... (That's more or less the official party line, if we're to trust those ads of the Rafael Bielsa campaign where the people didn't complain but only, happily, cried "More! More!".)

In the meantime, inflation in Kirchnerland was 0.7% in June. It was only 0.4% in No-Thinking-Men's-Land (Filmus dixit), double that in Santa Fe, and 6 times as much in Mendoza. I have to check the rest of the data, but I believe there's a definite correlation between the inflation rate of a given place and its distance to Economy Minister Miguel Peirano, quite possibly with fluctuations here and there due to the presence of Evil Neoliberals, unexpected polar airmasses, and political transvestites.

Now seriously, La Nación complains that the national government is trying to make things complicated for Macri. You know Buenos Aires has always lived off the national state. Telerman, since before his lame duck stage, and now Macri as well, have repeatedly demanded that the national state transfer the control of the part of the Federal Police that patrols Buenos Aires City to the City, something that was included in the conversion of Buenos Aires from a Federal District to an Autonomous City. Macri, in particular, wants the police to follow his orders, something quite understandable when you based your campaign on the issue of security (or rather, how to protect the middle and upper class from the lower class). The national government ignored the demand, until now. Now they want to talk about it, but it seems they only intend to give the police to Macri — not the money needed to pay for it. That's 900 million pesos, almost US$300 million, 10% of the city's budget. As Petinato would say, chan!

And that's not all. K's folks are also perfectly willing to let Macri control the subte (i.e. the underground, tube, métro), which is the preferred method of transportation for millions of porteños every day — safe, fast, environmentally clean, and extremely cheap. But don't hang on to that last adjective. The subte companies receive 250 million pesos a year in subsidies. National subsidies for a system supervised by the national government. Guess what will happen when the system is transferred to the city. Chan!

You're probably thinking I strayed off my usual territory, since this doesn't have anything to do with Rosario. Wrong! Do you know how much a passenger pays for a trip on the Buenos Aires subte? 70 cents! That's less than one-fourth the price of a cup of black coffee in any café in BA. Do you know how much a passenger pays for a (much slower, much dirtier, and usually shorter) trip on a bus in Rosario? 1.20 pesos. That's half the price of a cup of a coffee in most cafés here. And that's because the subsidies granted by the state to make gas oil cheaper for public transportation throughout the country, which were already very biased in favour of the capital and its metropolitan area, were decreased even more some months ago.

Now I don't have the tiniest bit of hope that the Kirchner administration will take funds from BA just to give them to us. But the funds should never have been granted to BA in the first place. The unsubsidized subte ticket will probably cost about AR$1.60, more than twice what it does now, but certainly not unpayable. I don't see the problem — that should be nice to Macri's associates and ideological supporters, who surely don't like such populist, leftist devices as subsidies, especially if they make it easier for the poor to move about cheaply in the city. And it should also be nice to the national government — with higher fees, the subte will be used less, thus saving energy (not that's there's in any way an energy crisis!) that the country needs to produce the value-added industrial goods that are fueling our economy, such as soybeans and sunflower seeds.

Alas, what Macri asked for, he will get. Is there not a lesson to learn from this?

PS: I've just added a link to an article in today's La Capital. The Santa Fe Province and the national Ombudsman offices are considering an accusation of discrimination against the national government due to the unequal distribution of the subsidies to public transport. The metropolitan area of Buenos Aires gets 86% of the country's total subsidies; Santa Fe gets 2.42%. Each bus that runs in BA gets between 9,000 and 12,000 pesos/month, while in Santa Fe they get about 3,000.

23 July 2007

Three cities

One of the often-heard bits of political criticism leveled at the local government, here in Rosario, is that the city is actually two cities. One that is prosperous, bustling, already past the initial phases of economic recovery; a Rosario that has been noted abroad for its quality-of-life initiatives and which is also, now, increasingly being noticed as a place of great beauty, of comfort, a big city with the pleasant environment of a smaller town. The other city is the one left behind, the one with villas miseria scattered in humble neighbourhoods where sewage is still conveyed through open-air ditches, where blackouts are commonplace, where insecurity is rampant; a city that the downtown residents despise and which isn't featured in those brand-new tourist brochures or, of course, in the minds of the mayor or the local legislators.

The invariable strategy of the Peronist opposition, since the beginning of the economic recovery, had been to point this out and place themselves on the side of the poor, disregarding the fact that they've been running the province for decades and, save for a short span that we'd better forget, the country since 1989, and thus they've had the money and resources available to help ease this situation all this time. The equally invariable strategy of the Socialist government
has been a knee-jerk reaction, pointing out a long string of initiatives intended to re-join the two cities, which are all fine but unfortunately don't change the big picture, while they continue to dump millions into beautifying places that could wait and don't concentrate on the improvement of issues that can't wait anymore, such as the eradication of the aforementioned sewage ditches.

The gap between the rich and the poor is so wide (and this can't be denied by neither opposition nor government) that anything done on a less-than-grand scale will always look insufficient. The Socialist-ruled municipality has the advantage of being comparatively short on money; you can't really fight misery if you can't raise taxes and the provincial capital gets back from the provincial state, proportionally, three times what you get for things like public healthcare. With the Socialist, former Rosario mayor Hermes Binner being the favourite to get the governor's seat in the upcoming main election, that "advantage" may (should) vanish.

But Binner, before the true heat of the campaign, said something very sensible (in fact, one of the very few statements both relevant and sensible we've heard from all the candidates during the whole campaign): there are indeed two Rosarios, as there are two Argentinas. The city may prosper, but it can't ignore the situation of the rest of the country. Even more so if we consider how many people from poorer places have come to Rosario, looking for work, and have stayed because they can at least scrounge for food and hope to be assisted by the best public healthcare system in the country.

The current economic model has been good to the middle-class urban consumers and to those who had cattle and crops in the countryside. The lower/middle class continues to struggle, but at least many young people can get McJobs while they finish their studies in our still excellent public universities; and those in the lower class who've had the fortune to be trained in manual skills are working in the construction boom that's causing concrete and glass towers to pop up everywhere. The truly poor, however, the ones who have no money and no means to earn it because neither they nor their parents have ever had a stable job, are still there. Their situation hasn't changed substantially, except the opportunities to live off other people's leftovers are greater... but this also means their resentment is greater too. If they could vote as they wish (thinking they can is ridiculous), the results of October's elections would be very different from those expected today. (If you can get your hands on José Saramago's Ensayo sobre la lucidez, a.k.a. Seeing, do yourself a favour and read it so you understand what I'm saying.) Hearing a so-called "popular" president endlessly congratulate himself on macroeconomic numbers must be infuriating for those who don't get their fair share of GDP.

So why this post? As I read the papers today I thought — wow, look at these three news pieces, look how they reflect three (possible) cities.

Rosario, version 1: For nearly a week, several hundreds of poor people following leaders of the CCC (Corriente Clasista y Combativa) have occupied Plaza San Martín, opposite the seat of the delegation of the provincial government of Santa Fe, demanding food, basic supplies, housing, and money. Men, women and children, along with the horses they use to pull their carts, have stayed there burning tires, sometimes attacking or trying to rob passers-by, the horses eating what they can and, both animals and people, urinating and defecating whenever they can, while tonight the temperature went below freezing point. The municipal government doesn't know what to do. The provincial government doesn't know what to do. The police do nothing.

Rosario, version 2: The first stage of an ambitious project to turn Rosario into a "digital city" was started today, by making free wi-fi high-speed Internet service available along several blocks of Peatonal Córdoba, the pedestrian segment of Rosario's main street. The authorities acknowledged that, while there's an overarching municipal project to close the digital gap, this is not really intended for that, as it'll be only people with notebooks and laptops, and especially tourists, who'll benefit from this service.

Rosario, version 3: The city council is about to discuss a well-thought, and apparently feasible, proposal to build elevated trains in Rosario, of the same kind of those found in Sydney and Chicago. The return of urban trains is part of the government's plans for the near future, but nobody knows exactly how those trains could fit in the city's already overcrowded narrow streets... if not like this.

You can certainly point out that version 1 is a very current present time, while version 2 is a only a very small step in the direction of an unlikely future, and version 3 is entirely hypothetical. Yet I could find this just by glancing at three different newspapers today. So?

My point is this: ruling a city is complicated. Don't let yourself be fooled by politicians who promise simple answers. If they were simple, they'd be done by now. If solutions only required time and money, they'd be in place already. Most often that not, we can only advance in small, disappointing steps. I say we support each one of them — and don't ease the pressure on any of the rest.

20 July 2007

Roberto Fontanarrosa, everywhere

Roberto Fontanarrosa
Picture by sergio_serrano, from Flickr
By now, if you live in Argentina and you've talked to someone in the street, watched TV, or read the papers, and even possibly if you live abroad, you already know that Roberto El Negro Fontanarrosa died yesterday. Everybody's talking about it; a biography, a lecture on his life and career, a summary of the coverage of his funeral, would all be repetitive, superfluous, too serious — something he'd laugh at and brush aside with one of his typical, feignedly serious self-deprecating comments.

He spent the last months, so they say, trying to make his friends comfortable with the fact that he had a terrible illness and he was going to die, slowly; it's quite possible that he waited for this peacefully, with neither impatience nor resignation. Many say that he's now making God laugh His ass off. I don't know what he believed, and I don't see any logic in assuming there's a God who can just matter-of-factly give a man ALS, and then grant him that his funeral ends on a sunny, radiant Friend's Day, surrounded by hundreds who loved him. Maybe that (a warm winter morning with friends) is as close as we can come to define something as "God".

Despedida al Negro Fontanarrosa

19 July 2007

Why, why?

So why did I go? Why, indeed, does one go on vacation to places outside the main touristic routes, especially when one hasn't exhausted, or even scraped past the surface of, the treasure of worthy touristic riches of a country like Argentina?

I went to Posadas due to a simple economic fact: I can't afford hotels. I mean, I could afford a passable hotel, and even a good hotel for a few days, but it would cost me money I'd rather spend on something else, like staying more days or suddenly deciding to take a bus and leave for another place. Priorities, priorities! Posadas had a hostel, or at least something that my Hostelling International map/chart of Argentina showed as a hostel, though it was more like a storehouse for cheap tourists (you check in and get assigned a place to put your stuff and, at night, your body). Anyway, it was a fine place except for the shower, which was never hot enough, and then they have a good excuse for that, with Posadas being in a subtropical climate zone and all.

I went to Encarnación because it was close to Posadas and I wanted to see another country. It didn't disappoint me. It was quick and cheap to come and go, and there were nice surprises, and the customs bureaucracy was not that bad.


Now why, why Oberá? Why going 100 km almost literally into the forest and land on a pension where the bed was older than me and you had to yank a chain after you went to the bathroom? Maybe because of that, precisely: because I've had enough of the big city and the complicated stuff and things that look just as home. Maybe because I got a recommendation from a friend, and I had a good feeling about it (the place indeed had good vibes). Or just because. You'd have to visit Oberá, if you can, and walk your shoes off along those hill chains they call avenues, and talk to the people, to understand why such an impulse trip paid off so much. I don't have the ability to convey why Oberá was so beautiful to me, why on my first day there I sent an SMS to my friend in Rosario to thank him for telling me to go to Oberá, and why I haven't stopped singing its praises in front of everyone I know and boring them all with pictures and stories about Oberá.

When the lady in the clothing shop asked me why, she was at first under the impression I was some kind of man-with-a-mission specimen. "Are you here for the shorts?", she inquired (meaning not clothes, but the international festival of short independent films being held in Oberá, by coincidence, at the time). "No", I said, "I'm here just to look around." "You told me you were a journalist, right?" I laughed. "Nothing of the sort. I'm a photographer... well, I just walk over here and there and take pictures." I hope she wasn't disappointed. I'm inclined to believe she wasn't. Only two days later, when I told her I was leaving in the afternoon, she said: "Oooh, but you can't leave! What a pity, now that we've started to care for you!"

18 July 2007


Oberá is a city of 55,000 about 100 km east of Posadas — not a riverside town but a town of the forest, la Capital del Monte. It sits on a rich soil with up-and-down slopes, like frozen waves of red clay covered by trees, ferns, molds, grass, and fungi, all year round. (A friend of mine recommended me the place. He said Oberá looks as if it grew from the ground, rather than being planted on it.) You can walk along the center of Oberá and not miss anything (except skyscrapers) that you'd see on a large city, and still be surrounded by nature: the avenues are more like strings of small parks, and the trees also line the sidewalks.

Tierra colorada

The single most recognizable landmark in Oberá is the church of St. Anthony, which you can see from any part of the town (as long as you're not on the bottom of one of those slopes!).

Iglesia de San Antonio de Padua

Oberá was settled mainly by European immigrants, and the current residents haven't forgotten it. They have an Immigrants' Festival in September, in a park created especially for the purpose, with typical houses of each community; but during the rest of the year, the many street signs, squares, plaques and monuments honouring the city's immigrant heritage won't let you forget where these people came from.

I called from Posadas the day before and reserved a place in a "residence". The lady who talked to me on the phone wanted to know who and what I was, and (from the tone I guessed) why on Earth a young man from the big city was visiting Oberá. She warned me they only could provide a bed — not a private bathroom, only a toilet and an electric shower. And please, she told me, arrive before siesta time or there would be nobody to open the door for me! I was happy to comply. It was like a 1930s pension house, run by an old man who owned a bar next door, and her wife, both of them immigrants, I believe German — the lady could often be heard speaking to another old lady, maybe her sister, in what sounded as very fast German (could've been Polish as well — I didn't ask). She had a terrible accent when speaking Spanish, but made herself understood. And she was always up early in the morning, with a kettle keeping water at the exact temperature for a good mate — neither just warm nor almost boiling.

The good news was the pension was right in the middle of Oberá. I didn't even have to pay for a taxi to take me there from the terminus, because it was only one block away. It was also only a block and a half away from the very center of the city, and (as I discovered soon) very close to a cybercafé where I could chat with the family and friends back there in Rosario and move my pictures from my camera's card to my pen drive, and also within walking distance of a bar that offered the most delicious takeaway empanadas I've ever tasted.

The main urbanization of Oberá is structured along an east–west avenue which changes names: the western end is called Avenida de los Inmigrantes, the downtown section is Avenida Sarmiento, and the eastern end is Avenida de las Américas. From the center of Sarmiento Ave. to the north runs Avenida José Ingenieros. Opposite that, there starts a diagonal to the southeast, Avenida Libertad. The triangular block formed by Sarmiento and Libertad is where the church of St. Anthony is. All these avenues run straight in the map, but when you walk them you become painfully aware of the z-axis. I exercised my legs a lot just by strolling around. Slopes of seemingly ten or fifteen degrees are not uncommon; there are places where heavy traffic is prohibited because the slope is dangerously high for some vehicles. You must either be in good shape or use the car all the time in Oberá.

In this city I finally felt OK , at home. The weather was still awful, except for one brief hour one morning and then during my last hours there, but I took my battered walking shoes and my umbrella and took to the streets eagerly. Oberá has two main attractions related to animals: one is the Birds' Garden (Jardín de los Pájaros), which is like a domesticated jungle with a narrow paved path that winds around large bird cages (and if it's raining when you go, the jungle-like impression is even stronger!). The other is the Reptilario, which as you may guess is home to snakes, iguanas, turtles, and even a yacaré (the smaller local version of the crocodile or alligator).

I tried to visit the Park of the Nations (Parque de las Naciones), where the Immigrants' Festival is held every year, but it was raining too much and it wasn't really worth it.

On my last full day I remembered I'd been told to visit something called Salto..., a waterfall in a natural camping site somewhere close to the city. I looked at the map and saw Salto Berrondo — 8 km from the city, reachable by bus. I packed my gear and went.

You have to be there. Really. A small stream runs into the site and is directed into a natural course and a cascade. You can get very close to it if you don't fear slipping on the wet rocks — in fact, you can stand right on the water if you want to. The place must be like paradise in the summer (and they'll charge you to let you in); in the winter, you can enter freely and wander about and you'll probably find only a couple of curious people, a group of teenagers camping in an isolated spot on the opposite end of the park, some locals sipping mate behind a small lake.

On Saturday, the last day of my stay, sunrise time was gray, but soon patches of blue started appearing. By noon the clouds had retreated almost completely. The afternoon was delicious. I cursed and thanked the random forces of nature for letting me see Oberá in its full radiant colours under the sun only for a few hours before my scheduled departure time. By 5:00 PM I had my bags prepared. I left them in the pension and went to buy my ticket to Posadas. I wandered aimlessly around, and just as I was craving some sugar, I ran into an icecream shop. I bought the smallest cup. It was twice what I had expected — about a quarter kilo of chocolate with dulce de leche and almonds. Perfect for a timidly warm winter dusk.

That was my goodbye gift from Oberá. At 6 PM I boarded my bus; by 7:30 I was in Posadas, waiting for the other bus, and at 8:15 I left for Rosario.

17 July 2007

San Ignacio and Santa Ana

On my last day in Posadas I took the trip everybody comes to Posadas for, which is the Jesuit-Guarani missions (known to many as the Jesuit missions, but it was the Guaraníes who actually did the hard work, so...). There are three missions near Posadas: Santa Ana, Loreto and San Ignacio. They're associated to modern towns of the same name, but in San Ignacio the mission (called San Ignacio Miní) is merely on the edge of the town, a few blocks from the main square, while in Santa Ana the modern town is located a couple of kilometers away from the ruins of Nuestra Señora de Santa Ana. Moreover, both San Ignacio and Santa Ana are close to the main road (National Route 12), while Loreto is 3 km away into the countryside. I started in San Ignacio and had to skip Loreto because it would've taken me more than I expected, and I wanted to be back in Posadas before it was too dark.

There are special tours to the missions. You get ripped off and carried away with a fancy guide and all that. I asked about that first, but I was told it was a stupid thing to do — better do your own homework. So I took the bus to the Posadas terminus, and then got on another bus to San Ignacio. It was very cold and cloudy, but not raining. I told the bus driver to drop me off in front of the church, which is where most people get off anyway; then I did a 15-minute tour of the town and then headed for the ruins. San Ignacio is pleasantly small and calm. The ruins are located 300 or 400 m from the main square. At that point you're greeted by a profusion of places to eat, drink, gamble and sleep, and by a lot of people trying to sell you cheap quality books and memorabilia of the mission. You walk 250 meters farther, and you find the entrance to the historical site.

You pay AR$7.50 (good for the three missions if you decide to visit them all and keep the ticket), and you get in. Once inside, you're free to walk and wander by yourself as long as you don't break or move or try to set anything on fire. I did that, took a million pictures, then joined a group with a guide and did the tour again. There was a middle-aged couple of rosarinos with a kid who asked a lot of questions (curious, clever kid, if only just a bit bothersome) and a couple of New Yorkers that I met again later in Santa Ana.

Now, as Borges would say, comes the difficult part of my story, because there are some things you can't just describe in words but only if the other person has shared the experience. San Ignacio Miní was founded in the early 17th century and endured until the last quarter of the 18th, when a jealous Spanish Crown delivered the Jesuits to the Portuguese established in Brazil, who came upon the mission towns, burned them down and forced their indigenous inhabitants to flee or become slaves. The remains of the Jesuit-Guaraní town, which once housed up to 4,000 people, are now scattered blocks of stone, worn down over four centuries by the elements of a fierce subtropical climate. The parts of the mission not devoured by the forest are still imposing and hint at a great organization and an unmatched industriousness. Imagine yourself being sent to win the minds and souls of thousands of warring natives of a faraway land who speak a language like no other known on Earth, and get them to become sedentary and to build a town of hardwood and stone in the middle of the forest, and raise cattle and harvest yerba mate..., and even attend church every Sunday. The Jesuits did it, and the Guaraní cooperated. When they were scattered, they knew a lot of manual skills and were organized; many escaped to other settlements, towns and cities far away, and changed their names to Spanish-sounding ones, and their trace was lost. Yet Guaraní is still spoken by many in Misiones and Corrientes, and Guaraní words still pepper our very own Rioplatense dialect.

Let the proverbial pictures speak more than several thousand words...

The mission of Santa Ana is not as grand as San Ignacio. The tour guide, however, made up for it with a great history lesson. As it often happens in not-so-popular places, the guy in charge had more time to chat, to answer to common and unexpected questions, and even to hear about things I had to say. Before, however, I ventured into the ruins by myself, and was surprised to find, by the remains of the church, a humble modern-looking cemetery.

The guide was talking to a foreign-looking couple. I approached them and joined the tour. The two visitors were from New York City; he understood some Spanish, she almost nothing. The guy told me his Spanish was no good in Argentina, and he was really having trouble coping with the fast-paced Mesopotamic Argentine Spanish of our guide, who spoke almost no English. I remained silent at first, until the dialogue came to a halt when the tour guide tried to explain the religious beliefs of the Guaraníes about an afterlife paradise land — paradisíaco was too long and too complex a word for the NYer. After several minutes of me not speaking a word in English, my interjection, "heavenly place!", startled the rest of the group a bit... After that I turned into a last-resort translator for a while. I enjoyed it — practise for my English, and conversation after days of sleeping in an isolated cabin and eating alone in strange places.

Santa Ana, we learned, was founded in the same wave of colonization as San Ignacio, and suffered the same fate. It was only the resistance of the Jesuits and the Guaraní combined that kept these lands from becoming part of Brazil or, later, of Paraguay. The guide noted, quite appropriately, that Misiones is and looks exactly like a wedge between the territories of those two countries. After the Revolution of May 1810, many parts of Argentina were left to their own devices. The Spanish were beaten, and the local political leaders (caudillos) became lords of their separate provinces, but in some places there was simply no-one, or no-one left. Misiones is part of Argentina, probably, because of a combination of luck and the fact that there were not enough troops to deal with such large borders as those of Argentina and Brazil... and of course, because whatever had flourished there had reverted to subtropical jungle in a matter of years.

The cemetery had a nice story as well. When modern Santa Ana was founded, the people recognized the religious value of the Jesuit mission's holy ground, and started burying their dead in the old Jesuit cemetery (on top, we assume, of previous native burials). In many cases, the poor had no money to build a proper tomb and just piled up stones taken from the ancient walls of the mission church. They continued to use the cemetery until 1980, when the municipality of Santa Ana opened up a new one closer to the town and offered the land for the remains buried in the mission. However, the cost of moving the bodies was not included, so many people left their relatives where they were buried, and even today they came to visit the graves to the mission.

As you can see in the pictures, the sun got out at least briefly while I was in Santa Ana. Alas, it wasn't to last, but it made for better contrast, and brought some welcome warmth to an afternoon that was getting cold fast.

I missed Loreto, but I couldn't have done it in what was left of the day. It's still winter and the sun sets fast, and I still had to catch a bus to Posadas, and another one from the bus station to my cabin, and get something to eat. I had to prepare my stuff for the next step of my journey, the Capital of the Forest — Oberá.

16 July 2007


The day I went to Encarnación was cold, rainy, dark, and windy. What a pleasure. I had four layers of clothing on. The little bus that takes you there runs through the center of Posadas, so I had to wake up early to catch it.

Going through customs is like a punishment. Once you get to the Argentine foot of the Roque González bridge, you have to get off the bus and form a queue before a cramped customs office where half a dozen clerks will get your National Identity Document (DNI), note it down, and return it to you. You exit on the other end of the room, and get on the bus again. The bus hops merrily along the bridge all across the Paraná River, and when you get to the Paraguayan side you have to disembark again, and make a run for the customs office. You hand them your DNI, they check it and give you a piece of paper with a stamp and the DNI number in it. Somebody'll ask for it when you return to Argentina, and if you don't have it they'll charge you 50 pesos, or dollars, according to the variant horror stories told by the passengers. If you don't get your stamped pass quickly, the bus will just move on without you and you'll have to wait for the next one.

I caught the bus just in time. I'd been instructed to stay in it as it progressed through the lower (physically and sociologically) neighbourhoods of Encarnación, up to the top. For better or worse, I got off at the bus terminal. I don't have pictures of that part of the city because I was a bit scared of taking out a shiny, if obsolete and cheap, digital camera, and parade around with it taking pictures like the stereotypical stupid tourist. The area around the terminal is full of people trying to get a few coins from you, to sell you watches or pirate DVDs, or to activate the chip on your cell phone for nothing.

Now, before somebody accuses me of being derisive to Paraguay, there are other parts of Encarnación where you won't do business either, and they're no worse than some parts of Rosario, of Buenos Aires, and of every other big Argentine city where I've been. It was the density that threw me off in Encarnación. I walked away a few blocks and I found a wholly different view. The city has a very nice Plaza de Armas, which is the main square, which I assume is called "Arms Plaza" because it was where the army was amassed in times of need, and that's what it was called in colonial times. Encarnación was founded at about the same time as Posadas on the opposite side of the river, in 1615 — it's a very, very old place.

There's a tree in the plaza that testifies to the very age of the settlement. It's called a curupay, which I'm told is Patagonian Rosewood, though I don't see how anything Patagonian can be found growing 1,500 km north of Patagonia. It's only about half the age of the city — just below 200 years.

Encarnación was initially a typical colonial Spanish city, but in the 19th and early 20th centuries it received a lot of immigration from several sources: like Misiones in Argentina, it welcomed a lot of people from central and eastern Europe; and it also encouraged the settlement of Japanese people, something Brazil up north also did (on a massive scale). The traces can be seen readily just by looking around; the last name of the mayor of the city is Schmalko, there are plaques and small monuments thanking the hard-working community of Germans that helped the town grow, and even a bust honouring Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko; and at least one employment agency offers jobs in Japan for people of Japanese descent up to the fourth generation.

The Catholic faith has been losing ground to evangelical denominations throughout South America for decades, but in Encarnación there are already well established, traditional non-Catholic Christian churches. From the central European immigrant component, I hoped to see a lot of Lutheran churches (something I saw later in Oberá, Misiones), but I'd neglected the eastern Europeans' faith. It was certainly strange to spot the rounded domes of Orthodox temples in Paraguay. The pictures below are St. George and St. Nicholas:

Another strange sight was the wealth. Not the healthy wealth of a vibrant progressive city (though Encarnación looked quite lively in that respect), but the kind of dubious wealth that shows in an over-abundance of big, shiny, squeakly clean new SUVs and an astonishing proportion of Mercedes rolling in the streets. I swear the bulky Mitsubishis and Toyotas plus the Mercedes made up at least 50% of the vehicles. The same kind of wealth showed even more insidiously in luxurious, mafia-boss-type houses that clashed terribly with their humbler surroundings.

Disregarding that, I liked Encarnación. There aren't many places that look good in such a bad weather. Encarnación has those same deliciously sloping and winding streets as Posadas, those same trees and plants and flowers everywhere, and it must be beautiful if you manage to see it under the sun, even in winter. I had no such opportunity.

One other thing, if you have the chance to visit Paraguay. They have no café culture. This was the most striking change. People in Misiones and in Paraguay talk with the same accent, share a cultural and ethnic background, and manage their affairs similarly, but as soon as you leave Argentina, forget about bars in every corner where you can order and get an espresso coffee just like that. I learned it the hard way — when, just before heading back to Posadas, I craved for a cup of coffee to keep away the cold and lighten myself up a bit, I walked around for half an hour and then I only found a not-so-good-looking bar where I asked for a coffee and after a long while I got... a cup of coffee, as in what you make for your guests at home. No espresso, no small sugar bags, no bubbly water to finish it. Worked alright for me, but only then it hit me I was no longer home.

Our next stop will be San Ignacio and Santa Ana, the missions.


July 9, Independence Day. The bus guy woke everybody up at about 6:00, distributed plastic trays and gave us breakfast. By the time we were finished, we were reaching a place where many people got off the bus. I thought it might be Posadas, but it was Garupá, a town in the metropolitan area. Posadas Terminal Station is like 20 minutes after Garupá.

The first surprise of the trip came immediately afterwards, when I took a cab at the bus terminal. I gave the driver the address of the place I'd be staying, and he started driving along really dark neighbourhoods. On and on we went. It turns out that not only is the terminal quite far from the downtown, but also Complejo Aventura (my place) is far away from both. I paid 13 pesos for the taxi ride, which would've been enough to buy me a good lunch. I got to Complejo Aventura, which was a large place with trees and cabins joined by tiled paths, and in the dark, feeling incredibly, horribly, uncomfortably cold (remember this was the day when it snowed in Buenos Aires), I was directed to my cabin. No problem there — except there was no heating, of course.

Long story short, I had to take a bus to get to the center. I'm used to take buses everywhere, but this one took ages to come. The trip itself was short, merely 10 minutes, and left me on one edge of the city center. Posadas is a fairly large, sprawling city; the center is a 14x14 block area in the old Spanish tradition: everything neatly arranged in a regular square grid, with a plaza at the center, with the government house on one side and the church on the other. I walked aimlessly around with my umbrella. The city was not very active, maybe because it was a holiday. As I neared the main square, I heard sounds of roaring engines and singing. I came closer and saw there were many people on foot with their umbrellas, sipping mate or just braving the cold, and a row of tractors and other vehicles aligning in front of the government house. I'd run into a protest!

I read the signs and asked some guy about the demonstration. Misiones is famous for its yerba mate, and produces much (if not most) of the yerba we all put into our mates every day, but the ones who grow it and harvest it are getting mere cents for it. It seems the government and the big yerba companies came to an agreement with the farmers to pay them at least 48 centavos (about 15 cents of a dollar) per kilo of yerba mate leaves, but they're paying less than half of that. The demonstration was colourful, with labour union representatives, popular singers, and the usual assortment of kindergarten-level leftist demands. (PS: I got a video of a woman singing in Guaraní.)

I left. I guess I had something to eat, then I headed for the Costanera. Posadas had a new coastal avenue built and paid for by the Binational Yacyretá Organization, i.e. the Argentine-Paraguayan company that manages the massive Yacyretá dam and hydroelectrical plant. (Yacyretá is the second largest dam in the world and by itself generates most of the energy needs of Paraguay, and a lot for Argentina as well. It's 83 km downstream from Posadas, but the effects of the rising waters extended past there.) Posadas has a lovely long costanera, which must be really a show in the summer... or just when the sun is up.

Some interesting facts about Posadas:
  • The city has a waste separation system! I don't know if it actually works, but at least the city is very clean.
  • There are exclusive bus lanes in several streets. This is something that was proposed in Rosario and implemented for a while, along Corrientes St., until businesses complained. One step back in the fight against traffic chaos...
  • The city, as expected in this land of past geological shifts, has slopes everywhere. You can get moderate exercise just by walking.
  • There are many trees, and wild things growing on trees or sprouting from walls. This is the main reminder that Posadas is on a wet subtropical area, even if it's winter and you're shivering.
Next installment: Encarnación.

15 July 2007

Back from the north

I came back to Rosario today at around 9 AM. I haven't been able to do much since then — I unpacked my mess, took a long hot shower (more on that soon), unloaded my photos, talked to a couple of friends to catch up, shared lunch with my family. I fear there won't be an end to the blogging once I start telling you about the many different things that I saw during my vacations in Misiones, but I have to start somewhere.

So I'll do more or less what I did in January regarding Mendoza. This post will be only for the general stuff. That would include the following factoids:

  • It rained or drizzled a lot most of the time, and it was unusually cold for a subtropical place. Then it also snowed in Buenos Aires. Nevertheless I had a terrific time, mostly, and came out of it without even a common cold.
  • I took a lot of pictures. Given the aforementioned bad weather, many didn't come out as I expected. There are many places that don't look as good as they are when not lit by unmitigated sunlight.
  • I was cold all the time... People in Misiones probably don't need hot showers often.
  • I think I'm in love with the city of Oberá.
  • I think I'm a luxury travel whore. I enjoyed being pampered by the bus company and would buy their overpriced tickets anytime without protest.
  • Misiones' famous red earth gives everything a nice warm touch, but red mud is not nice at all.
  • Paraguay doesn't have a café culture.
  • You can do a lot with very little money, but not without time. I need longer vacations.
Bear with me until I get myself in order, and I'll tell you about my adventures one place at a time... starting tomorrow.

06 July 2007

Going to Posadas

I'm getting my things in order because I'm going on winter vacations. It'll be only a few days, but not a long weekend escapade. I'm leaving this Sunday afternoon, to arrive Monday morning (Independence Day, incidentally) in Posadas, Misiones.

Posadas is a city of a quarter million people with no famous tourist attractions. The area, however, is full of ruins of 17th and 18th century Jesuit missions (think The Mission, though the movie's setting was actually elsewhere). It's about 1,000 km north of Rosario, upstream on the opposite shores of the Paraná, and logically much warmer at this time of the year. Now that a polar cold front (another one) is headed for us, I think my timing has been perfect... only the weather forecast for Posadas says either "cloudy" or "showers" for every day next week. I'd have some nice rain rather than just an overcast gray sky. It's better for pictures, too (except it's a bother to handle an umbrella without hands while you hold the camera still).

I'm told Posadas is very nice, even though it has no big monuments or the sophistication of bigger cities. I'm staying there at least three days, possibly more, but I also want to check out Encarnación, which is across the river, in Paraguay. Rumour has it you can smuggle anything at a very good price, from MP3 players to plasma TVs, from Paraguay. We'll see...

04 July 2007

Photo manipulation

I've been doing some experiments with pseudo-panoramic images and with filters. When I say "pseudo-panoramic" it's because they're not really taken with a wide-angle camera or any sort of special equipment, but assembled by software from a set of overlapping pictures. You just stand in the middle of the scenario you've chosen and take three, four, or a dozen pictures — take one, rotate a few degrees on your axis, take another, etc. Then you dump them on your PC, load them in AutoStitch, and wait for the pattern-matching software to do its thing.

If your camera doesn't have a manual setting, the software will probably have trouble matching the different (automatically adjusted) exposures. If left in automatic (or if there's no alternative), the camera will try to get a picture with a fixed total amount of light. If you have the sun in your picture, most of the light will be there... and the rest of the picture will be too dark. The software cannot match pictures where this light-dark balance is wildly different. There won't be any problem, though, if you just take a view of something far away, ideally with the sun behind you (or not more than 45 degrees to the right or left of the direction directly behind you).

For filters I use The Gimp, an open source program that was originally designed for Linux (the earlier version employed native GTK+ widgets, which looked —and behaved— quite odd in Windows). I've never tried Photoshop, for one reason or another, though mainly because I don't really like to fool around with filters that much, and The Gimp has plenty of them for me as it is.

You've seen some of my panoramas here, in Flickr and in Vista Rosario. I haven't posted many retouched pictures anywhere, though, except for some basic clipping, fine-tuned rotation and quick contrast/brightness fixes. However, you can do interesting effects with filters — and I mean interesting, not just funny or "cool". For example, I passed by the Palacio Cabanellas yesterday, on my way to buying a bolso matero (a cross of backpack and purse to carry a mate gear — the gourd itself, a thermos for hot water, and a plastic container for yerba mate). I had some less-than-satisfactory pictures of it... bad lighting, bad time, not the right sunlight angle to bring out the details, ugly cloudy sky... The light looked perfect this time, though, so I defied the nightmare of rush hour in the place with the narrowest sidewalks of the world, and grabbed a set of pictures, including five destined to make up a panorama. Back home I assembled them. The spherical projection made the vault look like a hot air ballon on top of a golf tee, but The Gimp's Perspective tool took care of that. I added a "Detect borders" filters, played with the colour curves, threw in a bump map, and voilà. The result looks retouched but not too much — maybe like something out of an old newspaper, or a very detailed sketch — and the building sticks out from its (depressing) surroundings.

This is a picture you won't get with a common camera; there's simply no room in Rosario downtown to back away and take nice wide shots of tall buildings. And sadly, no amount of photo-tinkering or physical prowess will rid your pictures of aerial wires...

03 July 2007

Blacking out from happiness!

It's so good to live in these times of economic growth, with the shopping malls full of light, and people buying around tirelessly, and the factories bustling, producing goods for the anxious consumers and for the whole world! Now, every time the power goes out, you know it's a good sign — it's just growth pains!

Or would you like to live in a country that always has energy to spare? As they say, only the mediocre are always at their best. The fact that we're having problems (which we are not) is a sign that we're doing better each day!

Now if you think otherwise, you most surely must be a neoliberal right-wing nut bent on the destruction of everything that's good about Argentina, from Sunday asados to good ol' friends' capitalism, or a poor unthinking sod deceived by the diabolic cunning of the neoliberal right-wing nuts. You're still welcome to build the country that the sensible people truly want, with us, the good guys — in fact, you're welcome to become one of us, if you have some voters that we could use.

In any case, there's something you can do to help you through the dark hours..., which means a lot of time, since you'll be often living one of those painfully glorious growth spurts when the power goes out because the power plants cannot produce, or the grid cannot handle, the tremendous amount of electricity needed to run Argentina ever-increasing productive beatitude. Just use this mantra:

There's no energy crisis... There's no energy crisis... There's no energy crisis...

Repeat ad infinitum, and you'll see the light. Eventually.


02 July 2007

Out of dark rooms

Yesterday's election brought some unexpected things. A lot of people went to vote, more than 70%. You'd think a compulsory election (under the threat of jail for those who don't attend) should not be skipped by 30% of the voters, but given the complete lack of enforcement of the electoral law and the fact that many people didn't actually know who or what they were voting for (the system is new, a bit confusing, and a lot of people are indifferent to politics when not simply dumb), it was a success — the rate of attendance was about the same as in most main elections in the recent past. On the other hand, blank and voided votes were a lot as well, about 17%. The profusion of ballots of different lengths and the possibility of cutting them to combine candidates from different parties and factions probably contributed to the confusion.

The real surprise, however, was Binner's loss. The Socialist governor candidate believed (as we all did, based on surveys) he was going to get more votes than the two Peronists combined, which would make victory in September almost a certainty; but he gathered about 30,000 votes less than the total of Rafael Bielsa and Agustín Rossi. Worse, he went public before the official figures were out saying he'd won over both, and even the papers got it wrong. Rossi was crushed — Bielsa got double the votes. So it's going to be Binner vs. Bielsa, and the result will depend on whether people who voted for Rossi did so out of Peronist loyalty or focused on the personal qualities of the candidate. If the former is true, Binner could very well lose the main election by a few thousand votes.

Then there are also the smaller parties and the people who chose them. This is not a ballotage as in Buenos Aires, but it's likely that, now the real numbers are in place, the September elections will be much more polarized and people will resort to what's called voto útil, the useful vote — a vote for someone whom you may not like but who has at least some chance to win. There's a Peronist candidate running outside the Front for Victory, and there's a Radical candidate running outside the Progressive Front; the former got 28,000 votes, the latter got 41,000. Not much in a province with 2.3 million voters, but enough to tip a close-tied election.

In Rosario, the Socialist component of the Progressive Front practically mopped the floor with its competitors, both internal and external, but that was pretty much expected. The Peronists should take note that their best candidate for mayor, Héctor Cavallero, is a former Socialist mayor (who sold out to Carlos Menem), and he got more votes for mayor than the votes Bielsa got for governor in Rosario — i.e. a significant number of people wanted to vote Cavallero, who was a good mayor in his time, and a good mayor in the line of Binner and Lifschitz, but didn't want to vote for Bielsa, and took the time to manually cut the ballot.

In case you're getting lost, remember this was all for almost nothing except for the Justicialist Party to decide which candidate will run. The real election for mayor and governor is in September, and the final numbers may differ greatly.

Yours truly won't tell you who he voted for, though it shouldn't be difficult to guess if you check my many earlier posts about politics. I'm hoping for the end of the 24 years of Peronist mediocrity in power. Worse, Bielsa is basically a Rosario-born porteño sent to Santa Fe by the President to win an election, and he takes pride in saying he's nothing but a representative of the President's national project. I believe a province with 3 million inhabitants who generate a large part of the total wealth of the country deserves a strong local government and independent ideas.

Some of the people who didn't vote yesterday will go to vote in September. And I'm now hearing people on the radio some people who say they voted for Rossi but won't vote for Bielsa, for the same reasons as me, but for Binner. There's hope.